Set to a space-age countdown from 10 to one, the Blackstone LaunchPad program took flight at the University of Montana on Thursday, opening its doors to the “21st Century Montana Entrepreneur.”

Held before a crowd estimated at 150 people, the anticipated opening drew the “who’s who” of the Missoula business community, along with city officials, students, regents, administrators and Blackstone Foundation representatives.

“Blackstone recognizes that new graduates face a difficult employment environment today,” said Pam Haxby-Cote, the regional director for Montana Blackstone LaunchPad. “It’s what makes the Blackstone Foundation program so important and relevant today.”

Based at UM and Montana State University, the program looks to train the next generation of regional entrepreneurs by providing mentorship and guidance to students as they move to start their own business.

The effort is modeled after a program developed at the University of Miami in 2008. Since then, it has generated 1,413 business proposals and created 210 new jobs.

“Our single greatest objective in the short term is really to create awareness across campus,” said Paul Gladen, director of the UM LaunchPad program. “We want to help students understand that entrepreneurship is a possible career path and it’s something they can consider.”

Gladen, who holds a master’s degree in mathematics from Oxford University and co-founded the Hellgate Venture Network in Missoula, had the pleasure of welcoming visitors to the new center.

No matter how strong or crazy the business idea, Gladen urged students to “start a conversation” by visiting the center for guidance. It’s there, he said, where new possibilities are discovered.

“It’s what I’m passionate about,” Gladen said. “UM is not short on entrepreneurial talent.”

Through a series of videos interlaced with local entrepreneurs behind such local businesses as Big Sky Brewing Co., Bernice’s Bakery and Five on Black, Blackstone Group president Tony James credited U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., for convincing him to bring the program to Montana.

James described the state’s coming together as unique, one he has rarely seen in other states. The theme of collaboration played throughout the day as UM recognized its 121st birthday after being charted as Montana’s liberal arts research university.

“The coming together of people like Royce (Engstrom), Waded (Cruzado), the private sector, support from the governor and your senators, (Max) Baucus and Tester, is unusual,” said James. “You might think it’s easy, but it’s rare, and that distinguishes Montana.”

Representatives of Montana’s congressional delegation read letters of support, and James Grunke, director of the Missoula Economic Partnership, said his organization was proud to play a supporting role in the new program.

Haxby-Cote, who was hired by the Blackstone Foundation last year to help bridge the efforts at UM and MSU, said the company granted $2 million to bring the program to Montana after vetting the state’s potential.

“Before they make an investment for their business, they do their due diligence,” she said. “They could not be more excited about the way these partnerships will make real differences for the students and for Montana.”

Entrepreneurship may be the most viable career path for many of Montana’s university graduates, Haxby-Cote said. Down the road, the effort could result in new businesses and jobs, and help keep graduates in the state through new opportunities.

Business ideas aren’t relegated to Internet startups, she said. They could include a clothing business, or a venture in construction, manufacturing or technology.

“I can only imagine what the students here in Missoula will do with this added boost,” said Haxby-Cote. “There’s not a better place to do this than here in Montana. The collaboration may set the pace for other LaunchPad regions around the country.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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